Sunday, December 24, 2017

Remembering the Farm: The School Christmas Concert

In the 1950's I attended a one room, Grades 1 to 8, rural school that my father had attended before me, located in the remnants of a village which today no longer exists. There were two events which brought the community and the school together, the "sports day" on the  last day of school before summer and the annual Christmas Concert, held the last day of school before Christmas holidays, usually on or about December 20th.

About the first of December a few of the fathers would come in and set up the stage along one side of the school.  Planks secured to sawhorses and grey with age. Aged curtains, once olive green, were suspended on a wire or cable that stretched the length of the school.  The windows back of the stage were covered in brown paper, decorated by the older students in tempera paints. One end of the stage exited into the boy's cloakroom (Yes, that is what they were called); the other into a small corner with a record player (we didn't have a piano in our school) where the teacher stood to direct traffic.

And so we began to practice. The program was fairly predictable. Musical numbers, one act plays, the odd individual or group recital, and sometimes something called a drill.

On concert night, wooden benches appeared from somewhere and by 7:00 the place was packed, standing room only. Most families came by car though if roads were bad, some came with a team and sleigh or caboose and put the horses up in either the school barn or the old abandoned livery stable about a block from the school. The place was hot and stuffy but no one noticed as excitement and anticipation kept the adrenaline flowing.

We once did a recital of "The Old Woman Who Swallowed the Fly".  I was in Grade 1 and was chosen to be the anchor man. "I don't know why she swallowed the fly. I'll think she'll die". School terrified me from the first day I went and the concert was the end of my life as far as I was concerned.  Frozen with fear, I woodenly recited my lines as the audience rolled on the floor and wept with laughter.  The more the audience laughed, the more frightened I became and the harder they laughed the next go-round. Fifty years later my father could not tell the story without laughing so hard the tears flowed. 

Drills were choreographed marches set to music, involving almost all the students.  And were usually disasters.  In Grade 2, our teacher decided we would do a drill to the Teddy Bear's Picnic, that being a popular kids song on the radio that year.  Somehow she acquired Teddy Bear masks for all of us. We wore the masks for the first time the night of the concert. They didn't fit.  They were too big and slid down our faces blocking our view.  There was a stage plugged full of kids with no idea where they were going, trying vainly to execute the maneuvers we had practiced.  We crashed into each other, knocked each other down, and in general created an awesomely funny melee. The audience thought it was funny.  We didn't and our poor teacher was so embarrassed for us.

When I was in Grade 6, we did a one-act play about two brothers, bachelor farmers, trying to hire a housekeeper.  I cannot recall the  name of it.  The time period of the play was in the 20s or 30s but the situation was close enough to ours that the humour came through, no problem.Another Grade 6 boy and I were the farmers. We interviewed several job applicants who were less than satisfactory, shall we say. I only recall two. One was a flapper girl whom we wanted to hire as she was cute but since we didn't have a nice car or a radio she declined the honour.  The other was a recent immigrant from eastern Europe with a thick accent (half our community was from eastern Europe) who specialized in cabbage soup only. "My sister, Olga, she wash dish". The play concluded with the farmers deciding they were better off to do their own housekeeping.

At the close of the program, we sang Christmas carols and the audience joined in.  Soon we could hear sleigh bells and Santa Claus appeared to hand out candy bags and if the kids had drawn names, the gifts.  The candy bags were something special, I can tell you. Halloween wasn't a big thing in our neighbourhood so we didn't end up with the loot that city kids get today.  So we looked forward to the candy bags.  Two Mandarin oranges, peanuts in the shell, hard Christmas candy and sometimes even chocolates. There were bags for all the preschoolers too. At our house they were carefully doled out over the holidays as some years it might have been the only Mandarin oranges we got.

If there was a raffle fund raiser, Santa also got to draw the winning ticket.  One year a quilt was raffled off and the winner was a young man who had recently married a very attractive blonde.  The general consensus in the audience seemed to be he didn't need the quilt, he had a wife to keep him warm.

The last concert was in 1959 as the school closed the following year and we were bused to a larger centre.  If the new school had Christmas Concerts, I recall nothing of them at all.  For anyone nostalgic for the days of one room rural schools, I suggest you read Lois Lenski's Prairie School. It takes place in the late 1940's in South Dakota but is so close to my own childhood, it felt more like a biography.

Saskatchewan, along with the rest of Canada, has changed and diversified from the days when 95%+ of our population was either Catholic or Protestant.  Beginning in the 1970s, immigration brought a mix of peoples who celebrate other religious holidays, many of them also in December. Catholic schools stayed Catholic but the Public Schools became multi ethnic and multi religious.  So Christmas Concert is out and Holiday Concert is in.  I think this is wonderful.  My kids were ready to be 'citizens of the world' at a much younger age than I was.

So I wish Merry Christmas to those of my readers who celebrate it and Happy Holidays to those who celebrate other occasions. And to all of you, health and happiness in 2018.



13 comments:

  1. Oh, this is such a delightful post! We had a school concert every year, but I don't remember it being a Christmas concert. The Christmas concerts I took part in were at our church. The entire Sunday School participated. I remember being a soloist one year, singing "O Little Town of Bethlehem." Have a wonderful Christmas in Regina with your daughter, although I'm sure you're missing your wife and family in Ukraine.

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    1. Glad you enjoyed the post. Tanya left on the plane this morning and will arrive in Kyiv at about 2:00 pm tomorrow Ukraine time or about 6:00 am my time. We are having family Christmas Dinner tomorrow. Two daughters and one son. Youngest didn't make it home from London UK as she had planned.

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  2. I loved that sooo much..reminded me of 'plays and skits' I did as a kid..but nothing as wonderful as yours..happy yule sweetie..I hate that you're alone..

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  3. Hi, Jackiesue. Tanya left today. I'll have family around for a few more days, then things will settle down to just my oldest daughter and her husband who will keep an eye on me at least weekly.
    Tanya's cousin Natalie whom Tanya refers to as my next wife, told Tanya this morning she should put me in a chastity belt since she would be away three months. Tanya said not to worry, I had a chastity bag.

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  4. I have traumatic memories (mostly suppressed) of Christmas concerts past. The teacher kept telling us to "sing louder". I was already singing at the top of my lungs, so my best guess is that she was hoping the other kids would increase their volume and drown me out.

    And I just read your response to JackieSue and laughed out loud: "chastity bag" - bahahaha!!!

    Merry Christmas and happy New Year!

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    1. Happy New year to you, Diane. School concerts are one childhood memory we don't mind leaving behind..

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  5. How are you doing now? Still recovering? And still frozen solid in the depths of winter?

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    1. Back in hospital since January 5th. Another burst diverticula. At least I am in Canada. Very sick and too tired to do much communicating. May go home 18th.

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    2. Crikey... sorry to hear you're in hospital again. You've been having such a rough time, and I'm so glad you are getting proper medical care. If I was nearer I would come to visit you and bring you grapes (isn't that what you bring to sickies?) but I'm too far away so I'll just send virtual grapes and my good wishes and keep my fingers crossed for you. Damn diverticulitis!!!!!!

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  6. Back in hospital since January 5th. Another burst diverticulitis. At least I am in Canada. Very sick and too tired to do much communicating. May go home 18th or 19th. I hope people see this.

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    1. Did they let you out to go home for a while? I hope you're staying in the warm and you're feeling a bit better by now.

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    2. Finally got out January 29. Tanya came back 16th Jan. Food is better here at home. Still too tired to blog. Recovering slowly. Too cold to venture outside but am walking inside a few times a day. Dr's appointment on Wednesday 7th . Thanks for checking in.

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  7. It's very rough being locked in the house during the winter weather. Just sitting outside for an hour in spring sunshine would do you a world of good!!! I'm in the same boat, sort of, having just had a hip replacement surgery. They tell me to walk, but it's too cold and icy outside. But I see the surgeon and get the staples out tomorrow, Hooray!
    I'll be checking in once in a while to see how you are doing. Meanwhile, Tanya's back, and you're at home, all good news. Keep smiling!

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